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Airbus eyes new customers for OneWeb Satellites

Written by  Sandra Erwin Saturday, 15 August 2020 11:14
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OneWeb Satellites, a joint venture of Airbus and OneWeb, inaugurated its $85 million factory in Florida last July with plans to produce hundreds or thousands of low Earth orbit satellites for OneWeb’s broadband megaconstellation at the rate of two per day.

A year later, OneWeb Satellites’ part-owner and main customer has entered bankruptcy protection and last month sold itself at auction to the U.K. government and India’s largest private telecommunications operator. Airbus, which owns 50% of OneWeb Satellites, says the Florida factory remains open for business and is preparing to ramp up production of eight satellites a week later this year.

Continuing to manufacture satellites in Florida is “absolutely our intent and our plan,” says Airbus U.S. Space Systems head Debra Facktor, who sits on the OneWeb Satellites board of directors.

Debra Facktor, head of Airbus U.S. Space Systems. Credit: Tina Krohn

Facktor says the joint venture will be producing satellites for OneWeb as well as for other customers. She sees a growing demand for small, mass-produced spacecraft of the type made at OneWeb Satellites, especially from U.S. government agencies.

The former Ball Aerospace senior executive joined Airbus in March as the European aerospace giant’s space business was being hit by a one-two punch of OneWeb’s bankruptcy and the broader economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. In July, Airbus reorganized its U.S. operations with the formation of Airbus U.S. Space & Defense, a new business unit headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, not far from the Pentagon.

While OneWeb Satellites is a major piece of Facktor’s portfolio, also oversees Airbus’ government space business in the United States, including Defense Department and NASA programs. Facktor spoke with SpaceNews via Zoom in late July.

What is the status of the OneWeb Satellites factory now that the U.K. government and Bharti Global won its bid to acquire OneWeb?

OneWeb owns the other 50% of OneWeb Satellites and is still a customer of the joint venture. OneWeb has 74 satellites in operation, 34 of which launched on March 21, just days before OneWeb filed for Chapter 11.

We are working on their next batch of satellites. The OneWeb Satellites factory has continued production throughout OneWeb’s Chapter 11 process and during the pandemic. During that time, we continued producing flight modules and completing final integration for satellites at a rate of about one satellite per week.

Long term, our goal for the joint venture is to have other customers that come from the Airbus side.

Do you expect more satellite orders from OneWeb under its new ownership?

That’s the goal. We are getting ready to start ramping up now that the financing for OneWeb was approved by the bankruptcy court. The court on July 10 approved the acquisition of OneWeb by the U.K. government and Bharti Global. That actually provided financing to the joint venture to restart production and engagement with the supply chain so that the next batch gets ready. There is a lot of hardware at the facility, and there is a lot of work to be done.

Of course COVID-19 has had an impact. We have put all the safety procedures in place and operations have run at a lower level.

There is speculation that the U.K. government could move the production of OneWeb satellites to the United Kingdom. If that happened, what is the plan to keep the U.S. factory alive?

We are committed to the U.S. We are in the space market and we’ve invested in Florida, so keeping our Florida operations is absolutely our intent and our plan.

In terms of customers, we see opportunities in the U.S. government. We have a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for the Blackjack program. OneWeb Satellites is our subcontractor. We have been executing a phase 1 contract for engineering work. In addition, there is demand coming from the U.S. government for proliferated [low Earth orbit] constellations, starting with DARPA but also from the Space Development Agency, the Missile Defense Agency and the Space Force which is very interested in this mission.

A OneWeb Satellites technician works at a computer last week at the company’s Merritt Island, Florida, factory. Operations have slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic but Airbus executives said activities will ramp up later in the year. Credit: OneWeb Satellites

We think there is a demand for taking our platform as a commodity bus and serving other defense missions, other commercial capabilities and the space science and exploration side, where NASA is increasingly looking at smaller buses. For their space science programs they are flying miniaturized payloads.

Having a bus that can be leveraged for multiple markets is compelling, and it takes advantage of the investment made to meet OneWeb’s needs. We have 74 spacecraft that the joint venture built for OneWeb that are up and operating. So getting more spacecraft into space means there’s more flight heritage and more experience and more opportunities. What I like is that we’re seeing demand.

Do you see the U.S. government becoming a major buyer of commoditized satellites to build LEO constellations?

A lot of the philosophy coming out of the U.S. government is that they want to leverage commercial capabilities and they also recognize that if they don’t use 100% the exact commercial model, they can adapt it for their unique purposes. So that is really where we’ve been focusing, showing you can adapt and that the interface that goes to the payload is secure. That’s a pretty important and unique capability.

These are some of the questions that are coming up at the space Development Agency and how they are going to build their constellations. It’s sensitive government work, but you also want to bring commercially funded technology. That’s an exciting opportunity.

Airbus U.S. operates under a Special Security Agreement that requires it be run by an independent board of directors that does not report to the parent company in France. Does the SSA impose restrictions on the use of technology developed outside the United States in classified space programs?

We can “reverse engineer” our products and rebuild them using U.S. intellectual property, software or components. We can essentially take the blueprint of a product and leverage our U.S. engineering team or trusted U.S. suppliers to build or recode it here in the U.S.

Our supplier ecosystem remains global and we are working with our suppliers to meet the U. S. government’s needs for their payloads and missions. We have a great supply chain in the U.S. supporting the joint venture and they’ve been great partners throughout COVID, throughout the restructuring process. As we move into new areas like national security programs, we work with our suppliers to make sure that all the conditions and security requirements are met.

What do you think are going to be the major challenges for Airbus working with DoD and the U.S. national security space community?

The first thing is going to be establishing a familiarity with the Airbus U.S. space and defense brand. Airbus has been in the U.S. for over 50 years and has a long history working with NASA in space exploration. And that was new to me before I joined the company. I wasn’t familiar with all the things that we already did.

There’s so much capability that is already in the U.S. so the challenging part is making that known to newer customers who don’t have all that background.

What really attracted me to the opportunity to come here was Airbus having that great history and heritage back in Europe with such a deep set of respected capabilities. There’s great trust in the brand, across defense, commercial and space exploration. The U.S. side of Airbus is super creative and entrepreneurial. With my background, having been in a couple of startups, I love that.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 3, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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